Getting Back to Our Roots

Saturday, November 3, 2012
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On October 24th, the University of New Hampshire (UNH) welcomed more than one hundred regional producers to the Nursery and Landscape Research Field Day at Woodman Farm. The event, jointly hosted by the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station (NHAES), UNH Cooperative Extension (UNHCE), and the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA), gave participants an opportunity to earn continuing education credits toward pesticide licensure, and learn about new and emerging technologies for improving the growth and seasonal maintenance of cultivated plants, shrubs, and trees.

Producers, landscapers, arborists, and community foresters came from across New England to learn first-hand the results of research and practice by UNHCE Drs. Cathy Neal, Extension Professor and Specialist; Cheryl Smith, Extension Professor and Plant Health Specialist; and Brian Krug, Extension Specialist, Greenhouse/Floriculture; UNH Research Assistants Amy Douglas-Papineau and Claire Collie; and Woodman Farm Manager, John McLean. In addition, Dr. Dan Lass, Professor at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts discussed the three-year USDA-funded Tree Production Research project, on which he’s been collaborating with Cathy Neal, to compare tree growth and production economics in the Northeast.

Jon Wraith, Dean of COLSA and Director of NHAES, and Anita Klein, NHAES Faculty Fellow, welcomed the crowd inside Woodman Farm’s historic barn. Wraith emphasized the critical role of the university’s agricultural staff and faculty members, including those responsible for the field day. He also pointed out a group of students in the audience, taking the opportunity to highlight teaching as an important part of the college’s mission, and recognizing the presence of their instructor John Hart, Professor of Horticultural Technology, who was recently honored with one of the college’s Faculty Excellence Awards in Teaching.

This year’s Field Day took place during the 150th year anniversary of the Morrill Act, which authorized the creation of land grant universities, and the 125th anniversary year of the Hatch Act, which created the system of state agricultural experiment stations. Klein underscored the importance of these acts, and their designations, by reminding the attendees that Hatch funded research is a joint venture between the state and federal governments. “The needs of producers in regional agriculture help us decide which research to support,” said Klein. “And ultimately, the research conducted by Cathy, and the others you’ll hear from today, will help your bottom lines.”

Participants were encouraged to take home posters and fact sheets that Neal and Dr. Stanley Swier, retired UNH Cooperative Extension Entomologist, put together on landscape trees and their susceptibility to invasive insects. “You can give the fact sheets out to your customers,” said Neal, “who need to know that the Asian Long Horn beetle and Emerald Ash Borer are now in this region.” Furthermore, Neal thanked the attendees for participating in an online survey that helped to identify the most pressing needs in the region at this time.

Woodman Farm Manager, John McLean began a series of tours of the various plots and high tunnels on property with an overview of living mulch trials. Teff, an African grain planted by Dr. Becky Sideman, Extension Professor and Specialist in Sustainable Horticulture Production, and her graduate student Brandon Smith, proved to be effective in that it did not runner out much, he said. White clover was used as intercropping in Dr. Tom Davis, Professor of Biology, and his Ph.D. student Lise Mahoney’s strawberry trials. “The strawberries benefited from raised rows because their roots were well above the water zone,” said McLean, “but the caveat was that – with a need for seven to eight foot row centers – we experienced some loss of efficiency.”

Dr. Rich Smith, Assistant Professor of Agroecology, experimented with multiple species of cover crops including Sudan sorghum, clover, ryegrass, and radishes to fix nitrogen and reduce the need to hoe in alleyways. While McLean was describing how Smith took aerial images of the checkerboard field and found a remarkable holdover response related to previous cropping patterns, an excited participant interjected, “Give me to Readers’ Digest version of what works and what doesn’t.”         

“The data’s still out,” said McLean to which Klein added, “Dr. Smith will have preliminary results for you at the Farm and Forest Expo in February.”

McLean led the group to an area of low tunnels where it is possible to grow big, sweet onions in a New Hampshire winter for harvest in March or April. “It’s remarkable what you can do with your land in the winter besides grow a cover crop,” said McLean. Furthermore, he discussed peach, pear, and plum variety trials and the potential to grow hardy kiwis in the Northeast within the next 15 to 20 years. The topics of plant pathogens like Apple Scab and Bitter Rot were reviewed in regards to experiments currently being conducted by Dr. Kirk Broders, Assistant Professor of Plant Biology, and his students. In addition, McLean spoke about graduate student Nick Warren’s research on tomatoes in the high tunnel. “He has a tremendous amount of production and data from one small tunnel,” said McLean.

Under a nearby tent set up for the field day, Cathy Neal discussed a variety of alternative landscape tree growing techniques and their impact on root architecture. She encouraged participants to do their own hands-on investigations with the table top displays of roots excised from trees grown through different methods, including pot-in-pot and in-ground fabric containers (IGFC). These growing techniques have an advantage over balled and burlapped (B&B) trees in that they weigh less and are easier to handle and a disadvantage due to the circling of roots in potted plants.

Cathy Neal’s research assistant, Amy Douglas-Papineau, introduced attendees to a series of wildflower meadow plots in varying stages of growth. Some plots had been seeded and others grown from plugs, but it was her goal to grow 21 species, including 17 perennial wildflowers and four native grasses, in each plot. Perseverance was key, as the seeded plot did better in the second year, she said. And with the plot grown from plugs, all 21 species were still growing in its second year. “The benefit of seeds is the cost. This entire strip would cost $500 in seed, $1800 in plugs,” said Douglas-Papineau of her wildflower meadow establishment research. “Over time, the species will be there.”

The next stop for the tour group was a visit to one of the high tunnels where Dr. Brian Krug and Claire Collie, research assistant and Master’s student in COLSA’s Department of Biological Sciences, were discussing greenhouse growing techniques for edible greens. “We’re trying to keep the compost as organic as possible,” said Krug. “We really want the low input.” The greenhouse was full of verdant greens, ready to harvest at four-weeks old, that had been growing under optimal conditions of light, heat, water from a system of drip lines, and fertilizers. “Since compost is very expensive, we’re looking for a less expensive peat source,” said Collie. And we use no liquid fertilizer – only an organic incorporated fertilizer – since these are edible greens.”

In the adjacent tunnel, Cathy Neal had come over to discuss effective techniques for over-wintering and the benefits of using fabric pots for improved heat and water retention. Regardless of what kind of pot the plant is growing in, she advised producers to heel-in the plants with mulch, lay them down or cover them, trench the plants in, or put them inside for the winter. Neal also demonstrated a prototype of a winter jacket being made specifically for her research on potted plants and offered growers samples of this silver insulated wrap for use at home this winter.

Back in the barn, Dr. Cheryl Smith was educating producers on the management of pests and pathogens, fielding questions from the audience like, “Is downy mildew limited to Impatiens (yes) and can fungal spores be transmitted by animals (it is possible for sticky spores, but not for airborne spores like Apple Rust)?”

In one of the final events of the field day, Amy Douglas-Papineau gave a demonstration of the air spade, a high-pressure air gun that safely removes soil from roots in a fraction of the time, reduces shock and speeds recovery in transplants, and simply makes it possible for most people to lift and move a landscape tree. In addition, Douglas-Papineau and Dan Lass spoke about findings from the three-year project examining tree growth data and the economics of alternative nursery systems.

Research goals for the project include an assessment of alternative product systems on profitability of Northeast nursery production, and the enhanced sustainability and value of agricultural land use in nursery production. Over the last three years, Neal and Lass have grown oak, river birch, and crabapples using the three production systems: field/B&B, IGFC, and pot-in-pot. While research field days like this one help scientists to disseminate their knowledge of impacts of production systems on root structure and the economics of alternative nursery systems, it also enables them to gather more information on grower and purchaser needs and preferences.

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